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Freedom of Information Act 2000: Implementation

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): Yes, my Lords, the Government will bring forward fees regulations under the Act in good time for their coming into effect in January 2005. We have published draft regulations, and we will be bringing forward to Parliament a final version by October.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a fee structure that charged exorbitant fees for freedom of information would in fact be the freedom to dine at the Ritz? Does he not grow more concerned
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every day about how far we have moved from those heady days when the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, brought forward his wonderful White Paper which cost him his job in the Cabinet? There was a commitment to freedom of information and to removing the culture of secrecy from Whitehall, in contrast to the position today when the culture of secrecy is firmly embedded in the Government.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on his first point. A fee structure that acted in any way as a significant deterrent to people making use of their rights under the Act would go against the spirit and purpose of the Act. As for dining at the Ritz, I do not know whether that was an invitation, but I shall consult the Ministerial Code about it. As for the thrust of the noble Lord's question and the possibility that he has inferred from, I think, a wholly erroneous report in the Guardian that the Government are in some way negative or ambiguous about the importance of freedom of information in strengthening democratic participation, he is wrong. We will demonstrate that as the Act is implemented.

Lord Henley: My Lords, has the Minister made any estimates on behalf of the Government as to how many new civil servant jobs will be required for this?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the best answer would be to make it quite clear that the Treasury says that no additional money will be made available to departments as part of fulfilling their obligations under freedom of information. The noble Lord can draw his own conclusion from that answer.

Lord McNally: My Lords, on that commitment to freedom of information, when I sat on the Select Committee that looked into freedom of information we took evidence from Canada and Ireland which was very strongly in favour of training civil servants in the run-up to implementation of the Act. What training programmes are the Government currently implementing?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I cannot do justice to the scale of that question now, but I would be genuinely happy to have a discussion with the noble Lord to talk about it in more detail. In short, we are reviewing the matter with all government departments. I have had face-to-face discussions with every department about its implementation plans, and part of the review mechanism of course includes their training plans to ensure that all civil servants are properly trained. There is a judgment to be made about how soon one does that. One has to ensure at this point that there is general awareness, while delivering the high-pressure training nearer to the deadline date.

Lord Henley: My Lords, in response to the question I asked, can the Government therefore confirm that the costs will be borne entirely by those making inquiries under the Act? Therefore, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was right in suggesting that this may be a case of dining at the Ritz.

Lord Filkin: No, my Lords, neither suggestion is correct. The Government's position has always been
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as it was at the point of the Bill's passage: we shall see that the cost of handling information requests is borne substantially by public sector bodies, as is right and proper. How the conundrum is squared between that and the Treasury position is not difficult; a normal part of officials' responsibilities is to respond to requests from the public for information. The only caveat is, and has always been, the cap on the amount of time and effort that we will put into very obscure or complex requests, as was made clear when the Bill was passed.

Oil Market

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, oil is traded in international markets, and it is not for the Government to intervene directly. However, I repeat the sentiments of the statement made by the Finance Ministers in the Group of Seven on 23 May, in saying that we welcome recent announcements by some oil producers to increase production and call on oil producers to provide adequate supplies, to ensure that world oil prices return to levels consistent with lasting global economic prosperity and stability, particularly in the poorest developing countries.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, would he agree that, in addition to short-term measures intended to increase supply to take the pressure off current oil prices, there should be an intensification of longer-term measures to reduce the demand for oil, especially in the road transport sector?

Would he further agree that such measures should include: the rapid introduction of biofuels; the encouragement of the use of hybrid vehicles, which cut petrol consumption by half; and the wider application of fuel cells to buses, as at the moment only two vehicles use them? Is there not a case for a targeted strategy to reduce oil consumption, to run in parallel with the targeted strategy for increasing renewables?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the Government are fully committed to increasing the diversity of energy supplies. The key commitment in last year's energy White Paper is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 60 per cent by 2050. We are giving priority to encouraging renewables and energy efficiency. We directly support the use of more environmentally friendly fuels through reduced fuel duty rates, and the Government further encourage the use of cleaner vehicles through reduced vehicle excise duty rates based on vehicle emissions.

The Government want the United Kingdom to lead the shift to low-carbon automotive economies, and to be a good place in which to develop, research and manufacture them. Hybrid vehicles are supported by the Government's Powershift programme, in which grants have been offered of £700 towards the purchase
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of those vehicles. We encourage buses that use dual supply in the same way. The targeted strategy to increase the number of fuel-efficient vehicles in the UK exists through those plans, copies of which are available in the Library.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, does not the current speculation about the future price of oil—that is what it is—underline the wisdom in the Government's energy White Paper of making the maximum use of alternative and sustainable energy and, if possible, of trying to ensure that those targets are seen as a minimum, not a maximum? That is the way to guarantee the safety of our energy supplies.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I wholly agree with my noble friend. There are limits to what the Government can do by way of interposing ourselves in any kind of market arrangement. However, we most certainly can look at the future in the most serious way through some of the alternatives now being developed, not least as a result of the high quality of United Kingdom science and technology, so that we can drive to a point where we are not held hostage by oil prices.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, in light of the deeply deflationary impact of hikes in the oil price, how much longer will it be before the Government review their allegedly neutral, and in practice hostile, attitude to nuclear power?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I feel as though I am revisiting a very well loved relation. The arguments have been well rehearsed in this House and I do not intend to repeat them, other than to say that the nuclear option has not been foreclosed. However, serious attention is being given to renewable sources of fuel that we believe will be environmentally friendly and will help to sustain the United Kingdom's energy requirements.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, how can the noble Lord say that the Government are doing everything to encourage renewables? In south-west Scotland, which is arguably the best place for wind turbines, there is a blanket objection by the Ministry of Defence to hill farmers—I have a declared interest in the matter—who wish to help the Government in their renewable energy programme. Nothing has been done and no answer has been given on the issue, which I have raised on a number of occasions.

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